A primal bid for nourishment
Two years on the way, a restaurant as ambitious as Osito is a daunting task, especially when the two years are pandemics. Chef Seth Stowaway’s first restaurant, which just opened in late December 2021, features investors from the public, a charity work tested in pop-ups where people can invest at all levels (even as little as $ 10). This, the warm service and space, makes from the start it feels common and united.
In fact, go into a pristinIn early January night, when a scorching sunset lit up the neon sign next door to Heath Ceramics, the room oozed warmth from recycled redwood and sustainably harvested sugar pine. The cocktail bar Liliana is to the left of the entrance, while the Studio Terpeluk-designed, wood-paneled dining room to the right has greenery and plants facing an open kitchen. At a long communal table under eye-catching custom brass chandeliers, it already felt like a Michelin experience with a tight, attentive team.
I have to say, it was sweet to eat at a communal table again, though nicely distributed. Over the years, I’ve eaten at many live-fire restaurants, whether it’s a dull experience in Singapore’s famous Burnt Ends, or underrated, innovative tasting menus at SF’s (recently reopened) Gibson prepandemic. So while open fire cooking is not a new trend, I have never experienced it quite like Osito, San Francisco’s only 100%, live fire restaurant without microwaves or burners. The wood-burning stove and fireplace, which was specially built by blacksmith Jørgen Harle, are fired with almond and oak.
With two nightly seats (5pm and 8.30pm) and $ 295 per night. person (plus tax and gratuity) plus optional wine pairing ($ 105) or reserve wine pairing ($ 155), this is a splurge. But let’s talk about why it is, even in a city filled with at most three Michelin restaurants in the country, yet another unique SF fine dining experience that pushes boundaries.
All of this becomes more impressive when you realize that this is Stowaway’s first restaurant. It’s southern Texas, where he grew up cooking outdoors, and eventually moved to SF, where for the past 15 years he has been deputy chef at Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s and head chef at Bar Agricole Group. I have experienced excellent service and wine pairings from his team over the years: wine director Maz Naba (whose resume includes Coi, Rich Table and Nico), operations director Lucia Camarda (formerly at Flour + Water Hospitality Group), beverage director Jon Prange (formerly Almond and Oak and Wildhawk) and Service Director Madison Michael (formerly of Merchant Roots).
Husband Dan and I hit the opening menu with a focus on winter game, while February moves in on local seafood (reservation at Tock). I live mostly for seafood, but game is not shown enough, especially as a whole menu, and this one was full of surprises.
First we started with cocktails in the aforementioned Liliana. I did not manage to try Chef Bethany Hunt’s dishes at the bar as I remained hungry after Osito’s multi-course feast, but was fascinated by a bar menu of elevated dishes such as kanpachi in almond milk, melon vinegar and chili, or local Dungeness crab garnished with herbs, chicory, blood orange and anchovies.
Already by bumping into people we knew at the bar, the wood-paneled getaway felt familiar. Foreign Affair was the best of the three introductory drinks I tried, spirits, yet subtle and elegant, the soft pink-colored drink served in a Nick & Nora glass showing off its mezcal and sotol (Mexican desert bush spirit) base, dry with white vermouth, Cocchi Americano Rosa and a whisper of absinthe. Homemade liqueurs form the basis of low-strength lowballs, such as a house-roasted dandelion or roasted stinging nettle topped with soda.
After drinks, we were escorted to the dining room with a small bourbon-Aperol welcome cocktail. Although technically there are nine courses including mignardises (dessert bites), some courses contain three elements or different parts of the animal so it felt like much more. Using whole animals always makes me grateful, while ubiquitous local produce and ingredients provided space to house pickled, fermented and canned foods.
A trio of bites arrive first, artfully displayed on a locally made plate. While a game-bird-mushroom-chestnut tartlet is a tasty delight, a masa ball of fermented beans, rillettes and finger-lime fruits on top tasted like Mexico with a twist. A small sweet potato cake tosses traditional blini on top topped, yes, with tsar Nicoulai caviar, but over a layer of sour cream and fermented huitlacoche (cornmeal or mushroom for you), resulting in a earthy, salty bite of heaven. Paired with a lean, non-oak 2019 Altesse Famille Peillot Roussette du Bugey from old vines in Saovie, France, the acidity of the wine lights up the rooty satisfaction of the three bites.
Already, the third track – another trio, this time of guinea fowl – was the night’s showstopper, singing with Naba’s pairing of crisp 2017 Guy de Forez Riceys Pinot Noir Rose Champagne. Curet guinea fowl was like an old fish with a bit of chewing and sashimi-like delicacy, cured in hazelnut oil, sprinkled with rehydrated fig jam. From texture to taste, I wondered if this was a hen. A juicy batch of guinea fowl-abalone sausage was combined with apple pine puree. It’s the kind of sausage I had never had and did not know I needed. Guinea fowl tartare is particularly enthusiastic, reminiscent of silky seafood tartare or raw chicken sashimi in Japan (served locally at Ippuku in Berkeley). Accentuated with quince and warm mustard in almond milk, the cool, textured tartar was truly a “wow” moment. More than 12,000 restaurants around the world later, it is very rare that I have something I have never tasted in just such a way. It’s that kind of right.
A brassica course (in this case Romanesco broccoli) is seriously “goosed up” (forgive the pun) with one of my Piedmont, Italy favorites: bagna càuda (hot garlic and anchovies) – and Stowaway’s “fowl floss”, reminiscent of Chinese pork thread in the style he made at Mister Jiu, flossing into sweet, spicy threads.
A main course with roast duck comes in several chunks with a side of brown rice mixed with wild mushrooms and fermented vegetables, plus braised cabbage in whey. A round of rare duck roasts uses a favorite flavor combination – orange and chocolate – with canned mandarin and cocoa. Duck liver pate in fire cherries is scooped up with a small waffle. A tender duck heart stands in contrast to the salted plum. It’s hard to top the juicy duck wing, however blessed umami-sweet in a glaze of medjool date, black garlic and pomegranate. A wine composition of a rare Nusserhof Elda Schiava red wine blend from 2015 from my beloved northern Italian region of Alto Adige (where I have been privileged to travel through three times), this course complements with balanced acidity, red fruit and soil.
Naba pairs an ice-cold ganerens of pear and stinging nettles with a zipper-like, sweet, creamy, yet lean Harushika Tokimeki Nama Chozo Junmai sake (nama is the fresh, unpasteurized category of sake I’ve long loved) while a California winter dessert of persimmon, honey and candy cap mushroom ends the party.
The glow from the room and the staff and the care of one of the most inspired series of venison I have ever tasted enveloped us as we headed home. I immediately started planning how I could save up and find time in the schedule to look up their seafood menu – and the spring vegetable menu thereafter. Welcome, Osito. It was worth the wait.